DENVER –Two roadless plans diverged in a wood, and now the Obama administration is poised to decide whether to go down the beaten path or take the road less traveled by.
The U.S. Forest Service is expected to rule within the next few weeks whether to place Colorado under the authority of the federal Roadless Area Conservation Rule, or allow the state to replace the federal mandate with its own homegrown rule.
There’s little doubt as to which path most Coloradans would take. Everyone from state land managers to industry to the three most recent governors wants the administration to choose the Colorado Roadless Rule, which tailors the federal plan to fit the state’s singular forest-management issues.
“We think the Colorado rule addresses the unique situation in our state, providing critical protections for our valued forests while also providing some needed–though limited–flexibility through restrained exceptions to the rule for local communities and economies,” said Colorado Department of Natural Resources spokesman Todd Hartman in an email.
On the side of the federal roadless rule are environmental advocates, who argue that the Colorado rule leaves too much to chance by allowing “loopholes” that benefit the coal, timber and skiing industries.
As the decision approaches, environmental groups are furiously lobbying for the administration to place Colorado forests under the more restrictive federal Roadless Rule. In an opinion article in the Sunday Denver Post, two environmentalists asked President Obama to “do us a favor and axe the Colorado roadless rule.”
“Colorado’s special places deserve the highest level of protection under the national roadless rule, along with the rest of the nation,” said the authors, Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski and Matt Reed, public lands director for the High Country Citizens’ Alliance.
The debate looms as potential campaign issue in the third congressional district race. Republican Rep. Scott Tipton has cosponsored the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act, which would void the federal roadless rule. His presumptive opponent, Democratic state Rep. Sal Pace, has come out against the bill, but told Real Vail that he hasn’t decided whether he supports the Colorado Roadless Rule.
What’s ironic is that the Colorado Roadless Rule was originally seen as a boon for the environment. In 2001, the Clinton administration adopted the federal rule, which prohibited road-building on 58 million acres of forest on public lands, about 4.4 million of that acreage in Colorado.
The policy was immediately slapped with a lawsuit, and during the court battle, Republican Gov. Bill Owens initiated the process for a Colorado-specific roadless rule that updated the state’s inventory of protected lands. The only other state to do so, Idaho, was able to win approval for its state-specific roadless rule during the Bush administration.
Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter later characterized the Colorado Roadless Rule as an “insurance policy” that could replace the federal rule if it were overturned.
When the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the federal Roadless Rule in October, alliances suddenly shifted. Groups that had favored the Colorado Roadless Rule as a better-than-nothing approach rushed to embrace the tougher federal rule, while those who had rejected any roadless rule reluctantly agreed to support the more flexible Colorado plan.
“While the Colorado rule is not perfect in our view, it would be preferable over a national rule,” said Spencer Kimball, manager of government affairs for the Western Energy Alliance. “One of the main reasons is that it was developed in coordination with stakeholders. It had several drafts and over 50,000 comments.”
The Colorado Roadless Rule would ban road-building on 4.2 million acres, but they’re different acres than those outlined in the federal plan. Colorado land managers point out that the federal policy was based on an outdated map: for instance, the map includes about 467,000 acres on which roads have already been built.
The state plan adds 409,000 acres not included in the federal plan, and also increases the protection on 562,000 acres over that offered under the Clinton rule.
What aggravates critics is that the Colorado Roadless Rule gives land managers wiggle room by allowing temporary roads for tree-cutting in forests destroyed by pine beetles, as well as permitting roads to reach existing ski areas and coal-mining operations. The exceptions amount to about 5 percent of the total acreage, but environmentalists say the result will be a degraded forest that weakens the state’s $10 billion outdoor-recreation industry.
Supporters of the Colorado Roadless Rule point out that natural-resources development also contributes to the state economy. Kimball cited a Colorado School of Mines study that found the oil and natural-gas industries contribute $23 billion annually to the state economy.
“Obviously you have a lot of industries here in Colorado, and I wouldn’t describe any of one of them as the goose that lays the golden egg,” said Kimball.
Whether land managers can build roads in forested terrain could become a critical issue during the 2012 wildfire season. This year’s early spring and low snowfall are expected to produce higher-than-average fire danger, and the Colorado rule allows for temporary roads for fire breaks and fuel treatments.
Environmentalists argue that homes can be protected from fire by treating woods within a few hundred feet, but “we respectfully disagree,” said Hartman.
“Communities need the ability to develop fire breaks that protect property from wild-driven wildfire, which can overwhelm defensible space surrounding homes,” said Hartman. “And keep in mind, under the Colorado rule the roads allowed to be built a half-mile from the community for fuel treatment are temporary roads.”
The state of Wyoming is debating whether to bring before the Supreme Court its roadless-rule lawsuit, contending that the administration created de facto wilderness areas without congressional approval. In the meantime, the direction taken by the Obama administration could for Colorado make all the difference.